Give-to-Get vs. Pay-To-Play: Conquer Influencer Marketing By Doing Stuff That Doesn’t Scale

Consumers can become desensitized if that person is just hawking products, and influencer deafness will become the new banner blindness. There’s no word of mouth if people stop listening.

Banner blindness is the wrong name for how consumers behave today, because it blames a brand’s failure to connect on a format. We’d be better off thinking of it as “selling blindness.” If the consumer didn’t seek it out, they get good at tuning it out.

You can assume the same blindness will eventually apply to sales messages in pop ups, email blasts, “thought leadership” microsites and podcasts. If it’s pushing your agenda instead of helping them with theirs, they won’t see it, they won’t hear it and they won’t speak of it.

The same thing is starting to happen with influencer marketing via Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest. The basic strategy is to use a talent agency to make a deal with a celebrity to insert your brand into their stream. It’s the modern version of the product placement.

But, like with banner blindness, influencer marketing is at risk of diminishing returns. A celebrity might have followers in the tens of millions, but at what point does that influencer stop being credible or truly engaging those followers? Consumers can become desensitized if that person is just hawking products, and influencer deafness will become the new banner blindness. There’s no word of mouth if people stop listening.

There are no shortcuts to influence

The only way to keep them listening is to “do things that don’t scale,” as Paul Graham, co-founder at Y Combinator says. There is a ton of opportunity in the area of influencer marketing, mainly by working with niche communities, but impact and scale aren’t necessarily going to go hand-in-hand at first.

Or, as Jeff Bezos has put it:

A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well. People notice that over time. I don’t think there are any shortcuts.

You have to do the things people can’t blind themselves to and don’t want to tune out because they’ve never seen or heard it before.

Influencers are a moving target

Leaving aside family and friends, I believe there are three kinds of influencers that marketers should be investing in right now.

Household name ‘celebrity’ influencers like Kim Kardashian. These are mass influencers with followings in the tens of millions. And they are pay-to-play. You put a coin in, and a tweet with your brand mention comes out. It’s very much like programmatic media buying.

Emerging celebrities who originate on new digital channels. Michelle Phan, whose homegrown beauty and makeup channel on YouTube now has 8 million followers, is the best known example. I think of them as power influencers. Their following may be smaller but it is more devoted and more authentic. They are still pay-to-play.

The problem with these first two categories is obvious. As soon as you turn off the spigot, the endorsement ends. They can create awareness, but unless that awareness converts into something that engages the customer and secures their commitment, it was a flash in the pan.

The third category is organic influencers, who are active users of a product and also active voices. I think of them as superfans. They are going to talk about, blog about and tweet about their experience with your product no matter what, and in the course of a year, are they going to tell 300 people why they should buy it. You don’t have to pay-to-play with superfans, but taking a give-to-get approach can help activate them.

Organic tastes better to customers

Celebrity influencer deals still do work. If you program them right, you can get a decent lift in traffic and brand awareness, but what really drives purchase is connection and continuity. You get that by earning a relationship in an organic way with people who themselves have organic relationships with their own communities.